Operation Nordwind (iii)

north wind

This was a German offensive in the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France, and as such the last German major offensive on the western front (1/26 January 1945).

'Nordwind' (iii) was in essence an improvised undertaking designed to capitalise on the disorder occasioned in the Allied ranks by the need to deal with ‘Wacht am Rhein’, and was undertaken by Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’ and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s Oberkommando ‘Oberrhein’ against a 70-mile (115-km) sector of Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army within Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s Allied 6th Army Group. Otherwise known as ‘Zahnarzt’, the operation led to the almost complete destruction of General Friedrich Wiese’s 19th Army.

As the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ offensive began, the 6th Army Group had successfully undertaken an offensive in the course of which the 7th Army had broken into the German defences between Sarreguemines and Karlsruhe on the northern side of the Lauter river. On 20 December General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding all the Allied forces in the North-West Europe campaign, directed Devers to halt his attack, extend his left flank to take over part of the front of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army, an element of which was moving to hold the left flank of the salient the Germans were creating in the Ardennes, and defend his sector against any major German attack. Within limits, Eisenhower added, Devers was to be prepared to yield ground rather than risk having his forces cut off by any German advance.

Having seen the fate of unwarranted complacency among the US divisions caught up and overwhelmed in the first stages of ‘Wacht am Rhein’, the 6th Army Group’s intelligence department was very alert, and the 7th Army organised a rear defensive position along the trace of the old Maginot Line (in the line from Sarreguemines to Sessenheim via Bitche, Lembach and Hatten) and a final defence line along the eastern slope of the Vosges mountains.

Adolf Hitler’s reasons for launching ‘Nordwind’ (iii) as his second major offensive on the Western Front in the later stages of the war are disputed, but were probably based on a desire to retain the initiative against the Western Allies as well as to upset their plans for any reinforcement of the Ardennes front. Three days before the launch of 'Nordwind' (iii), in an address to divisional commanders Hitler said that the forthcoming attack had a very clear objective, namely the destruction of the Allied forces, not for any consideration of prestige factors but to destroy and exterminate the Allied forces wherever the German forces could find them. Hitler added that it was not a question of 'liberating' all of Alsace at this time, even though that would be very agreeable, find great favour in the minds of the German people, impress world opinion and depress the French, but of destroying Allied manpower.

A German success over the weakened US forces in this area, for example an advance southward from Bitche to seize the Saverne-Sarrebourg pass through the Lower Vosges (the ‘Saverne gap’), would force Eisenhower to draw troops from the Ardennes sector to reinforce the Franco-US formations of the 6th Army Group. As usual, Hitler’s plans paid scant heed to the realities of the time including, most signally, the fact that the German divisions in this area were generally understrength and very short of equipment.

Planned by the Oberkommando ‘Oberrhein’, the object of this ill-conceived offensive, undertaken by Wiese’s 19th Army under the control of the SS-dominated and thus semi-independent Oberkommando ‘Oberrhein’, was to exploit the salient formed in the German line by the rapid advance up to 15 December 1944 of Patton’s 3rd Army to Karlsruhe on the Rhine river, on the junction of General Herman Balck’s (from 24 December Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s) Heeresgruppe ‘G’ and the Oberkommando ‘Oberrhein’. Patton’s advance had left the 19th Army in a re-entrant round Colmar on the 3rd Army’s right flank, and here the Germans were faced by the two armies of the 6th Army Group, namely Patch’s 7th Army and Général d’Armée Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny’s French 1st Army.

Exploiting the delivery into Alsace of German reinforcements including Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision as well as conventional land forces such as SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger’s 6th SS Gebirgsdivision ‘Nord’ and several Volksgrenadier divisions, the SS staff planned a typical German pincer movement. In the north Heeresgruppe ‘G’ was to commit General Hans von Obstfelder’s 1st Army in a drive to the south-west from the Lauter river toward the Low Vosges, and in the south the Oberkommando ‘Oberrhein’ was to commit part of Wiese’s 19th Army to an advance to the north along the western bank of the Rhine river from the northern shoulder of the Germans’ Colmar salient. The offensive was to be supported on its right flank by smaller attacks by SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Max Simon’s XIII SS Corps (Oberst Arnold Scholz’s 48th Division, Generalleutnant Wold Trierenberg’s 347th Division, Generalleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Mühlen’s 559th Volksgrenadierdivision, Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision and SS-Standartenführer Gerhard Lindner’s [from 21 January SS-Standartenführer Fritz Klingenberg’s] 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen) and General Erich Petersen’s XC Corps (Generalleutnant Hans Wagner’s 269th Division and Oberst Alexander Möckel’s [later Oberst Friedrich Trompeter’s] 16th Volksgrenadierdivision).

The main weight of the 1st Army’s offensive was allocated to General Karl Decker’s XXXIX Panzerkorps using Generalmajor August Wellm’s 36th Volksgrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Max Bork’s 47th Volksgrenadierdivision on the right to pass to the south-west round the western edge of the Forêt de Haguenau, Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Oskar Audörsch’s 25th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision in the right centre to drive to the south toward Haguenau, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Heinz Harmel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision ‘Frundsberg’ in the left centre to advance to the south toward Drusenheim, and Generalmajor Gerhard Hüther’s (later Oberst Utz’s) 553rd Volksgrenadierdivision on the left to move to the west toward Weyersheim.

This, the Germans hoped, would split the overextended 7th Army into two groups, of which that in the south (Major General Edward H. Brook’s VI Corps comprising Major General John E. Dahlquist’s 36th Division, Major General Ira T. Wyche’s 79th Division and Major General Roderick R. Allen’s 12th Armored Division) would be destroyed by the German offensive, so paving the way for General Walther Nehring’s XXI Panzerkorps to move forward into the valley of the Rhine river and retake Strasbourg against the defences of the French 1st Army (Général de Division Jean Louis Alain Touzet du Vigier’s 3rd Division d’Infanterie Algérienne and Général de Division Pierre François Marie Joseph Garbay’s 1st Division Française Libre).

Early on 1 January Obstfelder’s 1st Army attacked generally to the south in the direction of the Saverne gap. The XIII SS Corps was halted after a 10-mile (16-km) advance, but the XC Corps broke into the US position around Bitche. This sector of the front was held, from north-west to south-east, by three US corps, namely Major General Frank W. Milburn’s XXI Corps, Major General Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps and Brook’s VI Corps.

During the afternoon of 1 January, after a telephone call from Eisenhower, Devers issued the order to begin the movements planned for this eventuality. As the chief-of-staff of the French ministry of national defence, Général d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin had been advised since 28 December of what the 6th Army Group intended, and had immediately informed Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader. de Gaulle appreciated what was now likely to happen, and on 1 January wrote to Eisenhower protesting that the French government could not permit the fall of Strasbourg to the Germans once again, and also ordered de Lattre de Tassigny, commanding the French 1st Army in the area to the south of the 7th Army, that in the event that the Allies fell back from their current positions in the area to the north of the French 1st Army, he was to act unilaterally and take over the defence of Strasbourg. These two letters were already on their way when de Gaulle was advised of Devers’s order to withdraw, and immediately cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to express his opposition to the evacuation of Allied forces from Strasbourg. de Gaulle also ordered Juin to express the same opinion at SHAEF. The interview between Juin and Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief-of-staff, was stormy, but Bedell Smith told Juin that he would try to persuade Eisenhower against the proposed course of action, and to secure an interview for de Gaulle with Eisenhower on the following day.

Informed by Juin what had happened, de Gaulle again appealed against the SHAEF decision which, as de Gaulle had only recently discovered, affected not only Strasbourg but also the entire Alsace plain. de Gaulle remained adamant that political as well as purely military considerations had to be included in Eisenhower’s decision-making process, and in this he secured the support of Churchill, who had been alerted by de Gaulle and now, accompanied by Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, travelled to Paris. According to Brooke, they found Eisenhower ‘most depressed looking’, and when de Gaulle and Juin later arrived the French leaders were told that Strasbourg and the Alsatian plain would not be abandoned. It was then decided that Bedell Smith and Juin would visit Devers on the following day to inform him of the major change in Allied thinking.

At a personal level, merely strengthened by the orders he had received from de Gaulle and Juin, de Lattre de Tassigny had already decided that Strasbourg had to be held. Thus, during the night of 2/3 January he despatched the 3rd Division d’Infanterie Algérienne, under the command of Touzet du Vigier, recently appointed governor of the city. But, in spite of this, de Lattre de Tassigny intended to remain as long as he could under Devers’s overall command, and not make difficulties for inter-Allied strategy. That is why, at 22.00 hours on 3 January, he was very happy to receive the signal announcing that the Allied 6th Army Group had received new orders.

The VI Corps had began a withdrawal to its second position during the night of 2 January, and the XC Corps’ breakthrough to Wingen on 4 January threatened the flank of this line. As a result of the revised orders for this sector of the front, the VI Corps, between the Rhine and the Sarre river, now received orders to continue its retreat only as far as the Moder river on 5 January, even as the formations of the VI Corps were digging and the 3rd Division d’Infanterie Algérienne completed its positions in Strasbourg. Early in the morning of the same day the 553rd Volksgrenadierdivision launched a surprise crossing of the Rhine river to seize and hold a bridgehead in the area of Drusenheim and Gambsheim. Finally, on 7 January, the Germans struck to the north from Rhinau on the northern shoulder of their Colmar salient, but were finally contained by the French.

A series of German attacks at Hatten on 7 January and Sessenheim on 17 January finally linked with the bridgehead.

On 6 January it had been the turn of the 19th Army to go over to the offensive from the northern shoulder of the Colmar pocket, which was a major German bridgehead on the western side of the Rhine river. Pressing between the Ill river and the Rhône-Rhine Canal, Oberst Dr Franz Bäke’s 10th Panzerbrigade ‘Feldherrnhalle’ and Generalmajor Otto Schiel’s (from 18 January Generalmajor Konrad Barde’s) 198th Division managed to push forward as far as the Erstein heights, less than 13 miles (21 km) from Strasbourg and 20 miles (32 km) from the Gambsheim bridgehead, which the 553rd Volksgrenadierdivision had extended as far as the village of Killstett. Around Strasbourg there was a constant stream of attacks and counterattacks.

Bearing the brunt of the Germans attack, the US VI Corps was fighting on three sides by 15 January, and with US casualties mounting, and reinforcements, armour, ammunition and supplies beginning to run short, Eisenhower started to fear for the complete destruction of the US 7th Army, and therefore rushed already battered divisions hurriedly relieved from the Ardennes, to the south-east more than 60 miles (100 km) to reinforce the 7th Army. The arrival of these forces was delayed, and the US forces were compelled to withdraw to defensive positions on the southern bank of the Moder river the night of 20/21 January. A final German attack at Haguenau failed on 25/26 January.

Several German divisions were now detached to redeployment to the Eastern Front. The German crossing of the Moder river a little above Haguenau had for a short time managed to establish a link with the 553rd Volksgrenadierdivision. By 26 January the Germans had definitely lost it again, however, and the battlefield fell silent.

Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, was decidedly unhappy with the tactics Himmler had used in this offensive: instead of wearing down the Allied forces, his efforts had merely wasted 11 German divisions, four of them of the Waffen-SS, which had been frittered away in piecemeal actions, ignoring the fact that the barrier of the Rhine river prevented him from co-ordinating their movements. All the same, it was Wiese who paid for the failure of ‘Nordwind’ (iii), and he was replaced as commander of the 19th Army by General Siegfried Rasp. Himmler was ‘promoted’ to command of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’, which was more of a fiction than a reality, and was succeeded in command of the Oberkommando ‘Oberrhein’ by SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser, who was still recuperating from wounds he had received during the bloody fighting in the Falaise pocket.

All the German gains in 'Nordwind' (iii) were retaken by the later 'Undertone', and the stage was now set for the Allied reduction of the Colmar pocket in ‘Cheerful’.